William Dalrymple's latest book is a history of the First Anglo-Afghan War, when the world's greatest imperial power was resisted by one of the poorest nations on Earth.
William Dalrymple on his new historical epic Return of a King
“My travel plans never really worked out the way I wanted them to,” says the British-born travel writer William Dalrymple, 47. It seems like a strange claim to make. After all, this is the man who once followed in the footsteps of Marco Polo from Jerusalem to Mongolia (for his debut travelogue In Xanadu), retraced an ancient Byzantine route from Istanbul to Deir el-Muharraq in Egypt, and claims to have travelled through India, his adopted homeland, more than any other living writer.
But he has some justification for being slightly peeved. Where he really wanted to start his travelling life was in Iraq, and, despite having visited dozens of countries and written 10 bestselling travel memoirs and history books, he still hasn’t been.
“I’d always been interested in the Middle East and had arranged for my year off after high school to go and dig in Iraq on an archaeological site,” he recalls, speaking down a crackly telephone line from his farmhouse on the outskirts of Delhi. “It was my first real fantasy as a teenager. I always loved the idea of digging up Assyrian bulls, just like the great archaeologist Sir Henry Layard who excavated Nimrud in northern Iraq.
“But then, because of Saddam Hussein, they closed down the British School of Archaeology and my plans were wrecked two weeks before I was to set off. Instead, I joined a friend who was going to India, so I came to Delhi by default and never really recovered.”
Dalrymple’s most famous travel books are based on his extensive journeys in India (City of Djinns and Nine Lives) and the Middle East (From the Holy Mountain). With the exception of Iraq, he’s criss-crossed Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Palestine.
But his latest book focuses on the trials and tribulations of Afghanistan. Return of a King is a historical account of the first Anglo-Afghan war, from 1839 to 1842. At the time, it was the most catastrophic defeat suffered by the British in the whole course of their empire.
“It tells the story of the 18,000 troops who marched into Afghanistan and, in the retreat from Kabul, only one made it back out to Jalalabad – an entire army was cut up and lost in the snow in the Hindu Kush, ambushed by tribesmen and either captured or slaughtered,” Dalrymple explains.
“It happened at the very peak of the British Empire but they were defeated by one of the poorest nations on Earth. It was a major trauma for the British but for the Afghans, it’s always been the high point of their history: it’s their Waterloo, Hastings, Trafalgar and Battle of Britain rolled into one.”
Does he think readers can learn about modern Afghanistan from his retelling of history?
“This is exactly the point,” he replies. “There are many, many lessons to be learnt and the whole point of this book is to show how foolish it was to invade Afghanistan in the first place, but also to show the complexity of the tribal relations in the country.
“It’s one of the most troubled nations I’ve ever been to but one of the most interesting and fascinating. And one of the great joys of researching this book was spending time there – which many people choose not to do, given the war. I had amazing journeys in Kabul and Herat and came back each time fizzing with excitement.”
Next up for Dalrymple is his desire to tackle another period of world history.
He’d love to write about the end of the Ottoman Empire – the writer sees obvious echoes in Syria right now – but also because he’d love to spend time browsing the archives of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.
Or, depending on his whim, he may decide to attempt a sweeping cultural history of India.
“This is the moment in my life to take on a massive project such as this,” he says. “So they are both definitely appealing.”
Last month, Dalrymple took charge of India’s celebrated Jaipur Literary Festival, which ran from January 24 to 28 (he has helped organise it since 2006). Now, he’s keen to embark on an ambitious book tour of -Afghanistan.
“I’m making plans for a big tour,” he says.
“I’d love to go to Mazar-e-Sharif and the north but it’s early days yet. I don’t think there are many people who have done book tours there but, hey, I love the idea of it.”
Maybe only then, after he has cleared his busy 12-month calendar, William Dalrymple, the perpetual traveller, may finally make it to Iraq.
• William Dalrymple’s Return of a King will be out today